CULVER CITY, CALIF.—One of Hollywood’s most
gifted action directors, Antoine Fuqua explores the rarified violence of the
boxing ring in his latest film Southpaw,
released this month by The Weinstein Company. The film traces the rise, fall
and redemptive resurrection of Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), a talented but
troubled fighter who grew up an orphan in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. A boxer
himself since his youth in Pittsburgh, Fuqua delivers fight sequences that are
both brutal and thrilling. He places the audience directly inside the ring—and
sometimes inside Hope’s head—allowing them to experience the action from the
perspective of the fighters themselves.

The director’s visceral boxing imagery is supported by a
meticulously crafted soundtrack, created by a team from Sony Pictures Post
Production Services led by Supervising Sound Editor Mandell Winter, Sound
Designer David Esparza and Re-Recording Mixers Steve Pederson and Daniel J.
Leahy. In an effort that began even before picture production, the sound crew
spent months educating themselves about the fight game; recording elements in
gyms, boxing rings and arenas; and blending them with music and dialogue. The
results are boxing sequences that look, sound and feel gut-wrenching, and are
among the most compelling in recent cinema.
“Mandell, David, Daniel and Steve are skilled artists who
sculpt sound in ways that enrich the story,” says Fuqua. “For Southpaw,
they immersed themselves in the fight world and learned the intricacies of its
sounds. That allowed them to avoid clichés and bring the boxing scenes to a
life in ways that are real and memorable.”
“Having mixed most of Antoine’s films since Training Day, Dan and I have a good
sense of his goals for the soundtrack: keep it ‘real’ and dynamic,” observes
Pederson. “We look to sound design to delve into emotional needs. The entire
sound team works to serve this purpose.”
“Our challenge,” adds Leahy, “was to make you feel what the
fighters feel.”
While the film was still in pre-production, Winter, Esparza
and a small crew traveled to Las Vegas to capture crowd sounds at a live prize
fight. They positioned a 5.1 microphone above the press-box to record surround
ambience, while recordists sat in different sections of the arena to capturing
individual perspectives. “When we brought the recorded elements back to the
lot, we lined them up and panned them around the mix stage to create a full
spatial environment,” recalls Esparza. “We also captured bell rings, ten second
warning clappers and referees’ whistles. We ultimately used all that stuff.”
“We also made recordings back stage, in the locker rooms, of
fighters coming up the stairs, in the lobby,” adds Winter. “One guy went up
into the balcony to get individual people shouting at the boxers.”
Crowd noises were crucial to the fight scenes. “We have the
crowd react to different punches, to the ebb and flow of the fight,” says
Esparza. “Sometimes they bend toward one fighter, sometime toward the other.
They are quick to turn! The crowd is always a player; it’s never just wallpaper.”
Winter notes that while they were inspired by classic boxing
films like Raging Bull and Rocky they did not look to them for
reference. “We watched a lot of real fights…not movies,” he recalls. We didn’t
want to lean on what had been done previously. Antoine was interested in realism
and our job was to take the visuals that he shot and elevate them through
sound.”
Punches and other sounds from inside the ring were recorded
at Los Angeles-area gyms. Here again, the object was to replicate the actual
experience of a boxing match, rather than Hollywood drama. “A lot of movie
punches have heavy mid-range and a lot of drive,” observes Esparza. “We opted
to go more realistic with more of a leather snap to the punches. We did the
same thing with the boxers’ vocal utterances. Boxers work to conserve energy,
so the sounds they make tend to be very breathy. It’s not like the efforts you
might hear in Rocky.”
Winter and Esparza chose to record footsteps in gyms rather
than on a Foley stage to better capture the true sound. Boxing rings are
covered in mats and have suspension systems so footfalls tend to be muted.
“It’s almost as if the whole ring creates the sound of the footsteps on the
large movements,” Winter notes. “It’s that compression of air creating the sound.”
The sound design deviates from strict realism when the
camera moves inside Hope’s head. In those instances, the sound takes on an
abstract quality to simulate the boxer’s point of view. “We used contact mics
on our faces to create the sound of internal breathing,” recalls Esparza. “And
the punches are really big. If a hook is coming from the side, we placed the
impact on the right side of the theater so it becomes much more sudden and
visceral.”
Southpaw was mixed
in Sony Pictures’ Cary Grant Theater with follow-up updates performed in
the William Holden Theater. Pederson and Leahy primarily relied on a ProTools
system, augmented by a variety of plug-ins, with the music mixed on a Harrison
MPC console.
“The fun and challenge in Antoine’s films are sonically
addressing the intersection of outward action and personal introspection,”
states Pederson. “Busy action sequences frequently dive into the psyche of the
character doing the action. Sound can be very effective in shifting perspective
and steering the audience to where Antoine wants their focus.”
Leahy notes that screen focus moves rapidly between the ring
and the arena. The precision of the sound helps the audience to follow the
action and retain their sense of place. “For close-ups, where they are really
duking it out, we focused on the hits, the flooring, the ropes,” says Leahy.
“We go from up in the audience to down with the fighters, feeling their every
move. You are right there with them.”
Bringing the audience along is especially tricky when the
focus changes to Hope’s internal perspective. “We use the sound of punches
hitting POV shots (as the audience) with a different internal quality, in
addition to dramatic panning movement that’s  very disorientating,”
explains Pederson. “That is coupled with immersive breathing that is spread
around the theater to give the audience the experience of being boxed!”
The cumulative effect, says Esparza, is to make the audience
forget they are watching a movie. “Antoine keeps you at the edge of your seat
for the entire duration of the fights,” he says. “He maintains a delicate
balance, weaving between elements and keeping you guessing about the outcome.”
“It’s like a real boxing match,” says Winter. “At any
moment, either fighter could win.”
 About Sony
Pictures Entertainment
Sony
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subsidiary of Tokyo-based Sony Corporation. SPE’s global operations encompass
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go to http://www.sonypictures.com.
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